To Live Is to Fly
Toronto's Cowboy Junkies, known for their monumental cover of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane" and the catchy 1996 single "A Common Disaster," mark their 25th anniversary as a band this year and, as she nears 50, vocalist Margo Timmins doesn't see any end in sight.
"Surprisingly, 50 doesn't feel so old, and it's still fun, still what I want to do," admits Timmins. "It's so hard to believe that what we do is make records and tour. That's it. Fortunately we still love getting on the bus together. Not many bands can say that after 25 years."
Timmins credits late former Houstonian Townes Van Zandt as part of the reason for the band's longevity.
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"Our band never went kooky," she explains, "and one reason we're still here is that, odd as this may sound, Townes grounded us."
Timmins fondly recalls the band's trepidation about approaching Van Zandt.
"We toured with him on [1990's] The Caution Horses album, which came right after Trinity Session," she begins. "We were a band that had just gone through this very strange, exhausting experience of having a lot of people looking at our work, and we desperately wanted to get back on the road away from all that," says Timmins.
"The label told us we could pick our opening act and we immediately thought of Townes," Timmins adds. "But at the same time, we thought, 'This is wrong — we can't have the greatest living songwriter open for us, that just wouldn't be right.'"
But the Junkies approached Van Zandt, and he had only one condition: He wanted to travel on the bus with the band.
"We're a family band, so we never let anyone travel on the bus with us," laughs Timmins. "But we immediately said, 'This is Townes Van Zandt,' and everyone voted yes. So we basically got to live with Townes for a month."
She continues: "Sometimes life throws these things at us that are perfect. Townes was pretty much on the wagon, and he was just an absolute gentleman to me. And whenever he fell off the wagon, he'd just go off with the boys. It was surreal, but we learned so much about how to handle traveling and industry aggravation through Townes on that tour. Precious memories."
Timmins, who made People magazine's list of the world's 50 most beautiful people in the early '90s, also credits brother and bandleader Mike Timmins with keeping the band together and economically viable.
"We had Miles from Our Home out in 1998 and we were working it just as the Geffen label was in the process of being taken over," she remembers. "We'd be in Germany or somewhere and we'd suddenly find there wasn't an office anymore, so we felt lost in the shuffle and it really brought morale down.
"Working with the companies was always a struggle, but I remember going to Mike after that tour and saying, 'I can't do this again; these record company people are nuts.' I truly thought maybe we were just going to give it up, but Mike said, 'Don't worry, I've got ideas.' It might've destroyed us if we'd done one more album with a record company.
"But Mike's just amazing," marvels his sister. "He's got three kids and he's not an absentee dad. He's on the sidelines at all the soccer games and stuff. Plus he runs our label and he's our musical leader. I don't know when he sleeps. He has this amazing ability to compartmentalize."
Timmins finds the band's frequent classification as alternative country both baffling and amusing.
"That's the industry side of things," she laughs. "People have always asked how we classify ourselves, and I'm even more confused than anybody listening to it, because we'll be putting something together in the studio and the bass line sounds like something from Joy Division, I'm singing country and Mike is playing some blues thing, and sometimes it just seems like noise. But that's what our sound is."
Canadian bands that do well in the U.S. are often accused of pandering to the American market, but Timmins dismisses the whole idea.
"We started playing because we loved music. At that time, the idea of a Canadian band getting a record contract was just unheard of," she recalls. "But the U.S. has always been our biggest market, and we concentrated on it from the very beginning. We actually snuck ourselves into the U.S. in '86 before we recorded Trinity Sessions and played almost any place that would have us for about three months. We made it as far south as Atlanta.
"We actually come out of this folk music background being from Canada, but while we were down there on that first tour, we started reading about Steve Earle and Lyle Lovett — guys who'd just gotten these big Nashville deals, and that's when we truly discovered country music," Timmins continues.
"Lyle would mention the Louvin Brothers in an article and we'd go find the music and go, 'Wow.' And that's what you hear happening to us on Trinity; we're digging into true country music for the first time and trying to put our personal thing on it."
Canada, where the Junkies formed in 1985, is actually one of the band's poorer markets, Timmins notes.
"In 25 years, we've only canceled two shows due to slow advance ticket sales, and both of them were in Canada," she says. "Sad to say, but one of them was right here in our hometown. So the U.S. market is vital for us."
The Trinity Session (1988), the band's quiet, ethereal breakthrough second album, was recorded in a church with a single microphone, and defined the Junkies' signature icy sound. Timmins says that wasn't entirely planned, but rather the way the sessions had to be done.
"Our rehearsal space back then was a garage right in the middle of a very ethnic, mostly Italian neighborhood, so we practiced very softly," she says. "And I have a naturally quiet voice — to sing loud really doesn't suit my personality, so that also influenced the way we approached music at that time."
Unlike the trajectory of most bands, Cowboy Junkies have actually gotten louder and rocked harder as time has passed.
"I think that's because we're angrier now," laughs Timmins.
The band has always been known for distinctive covers of songs like "Sweet Jane," Hank Williams Sr.'s "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" and Van Zandt's "To Live Is to Fly," which he wrote with them in mind when he helped produce their third studio album, Black Eyed Man. Timmins notes the Junkies' next project is entirely covers.
"We loved Vic Chesnutt and we were going to do an album together because our voices were the same, but due to his death last year that isn't possible," she says. "We are all huge fans, and when you actually get inside his songs you realize he was a true genius. And it's so tragic that almost no one ever got it while he was alive. Hopefully the album will shed more light on Vic."
As for being the lone woman on a bus with eight men for 25 years, Timmins admits she's had to develop a few tolerances. One, she notes, is hockey and the NHL.
"Hockey is all the boys talk about," she sighs in a way that immediately marks her as the woman who sings for the Cowboy Junkies. "I just wish it would all go away."
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